Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Kozmos with Zaza

What a night- Fremont Peak, near San Juan Bautista. The Milky Way from horizon to horizon. Even though I wander through life in the fog and dark, this was the darkest dark I’ve experienced for some time. The familiar constellations were obscured by the appearance of thousands of stars invisible from my back yard. We looked up for 4 hours after which I couldn’t look down, literally.

With my telescope, a scarf and veteran astronomer Alan Zaza, and his, (OK, bigger) telescope, I spent a glorious night looking up in space and back in time. The most magnificent object we observed was The Veil Nebula. This gossamer object, 50 light-years across, is the remnant of a supernova explosion. Imagine. An object 300,000,000,000,000,000 miles across imaged on my little ‘ole retina. Goodness! The number itself barely fits.

In order to see this ghost of an object, it is necessary to block out all the light behind and in front of it. We used an OIII filter, which lets through only light resulting from a very improbable event- the forbidden* downward energy transition of doubly ionized oxygen (Naughty, naughty atom!). For many years, the origin of this light was thought to be evidence of a new element, Nebulium. The actual origin was ruled out because of its statistical improbability. But in 1927, a guy named I.S. Bowen said, “Hey, in space, ANYTHING can happen” And so it does and so right he was. I mean, I’ve heard of thinking outside the box, but this was RIDICULOUS! What a great thinker.

Unbelievable, no? We are seeing forbidden light from an atom trillions and trillions of miles away. As we encounter so many times in astronomy and cosmology, the very large, the very small and the very improbable are evident at once. The Veil Nebula is thought to be about 1,500 light-years away. When those oxygen atoms made their impudent transitions, King Arthur was looking for the Holy Grail. Think about that. And when you’re through, think about something else, like who you’re going to vote for in November.

I re-read this piece and I see words like ‘forbidden’, ‘improbable’, and lots and lots of zeros. And that’s astronomy for ya’. So much of it is difficult to imagine. Astronomy reminds us how restricted our “born-with” senses are and how infinite, in comparison, is the intellect which has enabled us to perceive so far beyond the limitations of vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Clever, us Earthlings.

* For ‘forbidden’ read ‘highly improbable’. Scientists are always exaggerating for dramatic effect.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Eclipse Expedition 2008

How I watched the August 2008 Solar Eclipse

Here's a sad story. Too lazy to go to Russia. Too lazy to go to China. Too lazy to drive to Exploratorium to view the marvelous 3 satellite bounce China live-cast, only 40 minute away, plenty of parking, too lazy to get out of bed, go down to my computer to watch it on the net, so brought laptop into bed, set alarm for 3:50 AM because too lazy to watch the whole partial phase, then the ULTIMATE laziness, too lazy to TURN ON the alarm. So, too lazy to sit up in bed until 8:30, opened up laptop to watch replay, and finally, fast-forward because too lazy to watch through partial- oh- mentioned that one before.
The pay-off? I was transported by the images. So was my family with whom I've seen 3 of my 8 eclipses. We were all jumping up and down in front of the monitor, and I even instinctively tried to use my mouse cursor to brush away the clouds that preceeded totality. Surprise! It worked.

Hours before, had telescope in backyard and looked at Jupiter. We were having a big party for my daughter and all her artistic and talented right-brained friends and, as usual, blew them all away. Proves my contention that amateur astronomy is indeed an intellectual, even more than a scientific, pursuit.

It is left to the student to explain why I set my alarm to watch a solar eclipse at night.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

More Calculator Follies

I’ve spent an hour this morning taking apart a calculator I bought at Walgreen’s today. Nice, but one fatal flaw. It’s a 7 segment display and the exponent in scientific notation is so far to the right that the two rightmost (vertical) segments are hidden under the front bezel, so you can’t tell if you have a 6 or 8, (so you can make a mistake of 2 orders of magnitude). Worse, a hapless 1 in the LSB location is completely missing. So here you could make a mistake of 82 orders of magnitude if you read 10^91 as 10^9. If you work it out it’s like thinking you have something the size of a quark when actually you’re dealing with something which is 1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 ( sadly, this is the right number of zeros, using today's estimates) times as large as the observable Universe. If I’m not mistaken, this is the biggest error humans are capable of other than Bush. It's amazing that it can FIT onto this modest calculator.

Went back to see if the other calculators on the rack had same flaw. They did. So, I took mine apart, removed the display, filed away some of the bracket holding it, slid it to the left, re-affixed with hot-glue and Voila! The calculator was 11 bucks. At $40/hour, it wasn’t worth it, but then I realized I was at home where my rate is $ZERO per hour. Now it seems like it was a deal. Resounding in my head was the Mantra of the Maker. “If you haven’t taken it apart, you don’t own it.”

Friday, April 25, 2008

Seder, Saturn and Scopes

We had a wonderful Seder this year with 18 people and only one telescope. I turned it’s mirror on Saturn and invited all who were interested outside to planet-gaze. The responses were gratifying. “No! That’s not real! You painted it on!” One clever kid put his hand in front of the scope to make sure the image disappeared, and that I hadn’t just cleverly mounted a projector inside.

"It's MOVING!"
"Well, it is, but not for the reason you think it is. It's the rotation of the Earth that's moving the telescope."
"No! Get out!. Really? That is so cool"

What is it about gazing through a telescope at a tiny image of an object that has been mapped, landed on, orbited around, and has posed for great imaging probes, yielding breathtakingly detailed pictures, that make it still a thrill to view with your own eye. It’s a truly right-brained activity, actually, when you think about it (with your left brain!)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

My Sheltered Spellchecker

I have learned much about myself from my spellchecker. I use words that are very familiar to me but unknown to the spellchecker. Each time it underlines a word, common in my vocabulary, I feel more isolated. I even have arguments with the spellchecker, repeatedly changing the autocorrected word back to what I wanted. I found that after only 3 tries, it relents. So, if not part of the rest of society, I’m at least, to a group of silicon-based semiconductors, quite persuasive.

The most disheartening experience is to have your own name unrecognized by the spellchecker and have to press that button, “IGNORE”. I always mutter- “Ignoring myself. It’s come to this”

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Kasevich's Great Gravity Experiment

I just read that Dr. Kasevich and crew at Stanford, are designing an experiment to test the theory that objects fall at rates independent of their mass, to a precision of 20 decimal places.

Now, Galileo already did this atop the Leaning Tower, but these Stanford guys are serious. Serious to 1 part in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000. No kidding. So, if it's successful, they can proclaim, "Galileo was right!"

As a gedenken experiment,

Define m1= mass of Stan Laurel
Define m2= mass of Oliver Hardy
Assume that m2/m1=2

Assume Laurel is spherical and Ollie is cylindrical and that m2/m1=2

Assume that the acceleration differs between Stan and Ollie by 1 part in 10^20, the precision of the present experement.

Assume also that the acceleration is constant, for both.

Then, in order that Ollie hit first by one diameter (assuming a spherical Hardy, as aforeto mentioned, R(Ollie)=2 Meters, the distance they must fall is 21 light years.

A light year, if you're still awake, is 5,878,499,810,000 miles or 5.8 TRILLION miles. Heck, that's not even 1 National Debt Ceiling.

Sometimes it is helpful to explain the sophistication of these experiments with examples everyone can relate to.

Smith's Cloud

Got my latest copy of Astonomy Magazine. According to the American Astronomical Society, a giant cloud of gas is heading towards our Milky Way Galaxy.

Good news. The Smith's Cloud will collide with our Galaxy with enough energy and material to form a million stars like our own Sun. And around some of these million stars will be planets. And on many of these planets life will form, and on one of THESE planets humans will evolve. And one of these humans might well be a decent Presidential candidate!

Bad news? The collision will occur 40 million years from now, well after the polls close............for good.